Wesley Snipes Cleared of Tax Fraud

Movie tough guy Wesley Snipes said he planned to spend time "communing with the Lord" while he waits to learn whether he'll face prison time for failing to file tax returns.

"Mr. Snipes has his life back today," defense co-counsel Robert Bernhoft said Friday after jurors acquitted his client of felony tax charges. They found Snipes guilty only of failing to file a tax return for three years.

The actor could have faced 16 years in prison if convicted of conspiring to impede the Internal Revenue Service, fraud and the six lesser charges alleged by federal prosecutors.

The three counts of failure to file are misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in prison each. But lawyers and others familiar with tax cases said such a sentence is unlikely for the action star.

Jostled by a mob of reporters and swarming fans outside the federal courthouse in Ocala, Snipes did not give a statement. Instead, he fielded questions shouted at him as he was led to a waiting Cadillac SUV by his entourage.

Asked whether he intended to pay his taxes, he answered, "I've always been willing."

He ignored questions about why he did not pay taxes on an estimated $38 million he earned from films and investments during 1999 through 2004.

"I'm overwhelmed with emotion; I think you understand," he said.

The star of the "Blade" trilogy, "U.S. Marshals" and other dramas told fans he was "happy, relieved, grateful" and that he planned to offer prayers of thanks.

The IRS intends to pursue him civilly for unpaid taxes, said Victor Lessoff, special agent in charge of the agency's Tampa office. "If he wants to work with us, we'll work with him," Lessoff said. Defense co-counsel Robert Barnes estimated the actor owes $8 million in taxes and penalties -- a figure the IRS would not confirm or discuss.

IRS officials hid any disappointment in the verdict, which came in a case widely regarded as the highest-profile tax prosecution in two decades.

"The IRS doesn't see this as a loss," Lessoff said. "Our job is to promote compliance, and this gets the message out. Wesley Snipes was convicted of three tax crimes. It's going to go nationwide. People will see that even a celebrity of his stature has to pay taxes or face the consequences."

He hailed the fraud and conspiracy convictions of Snipes' co-defendants, tax preparer Douglas Rosile, 59, of Venice, Fla., and Eddie Ray Kahn, 64, who founded and led American Rights Litigators and the Guiding Light of God Ministries, a pair of tax-protest organizations, from offices in Lake County.

Both could be sentenced to 10 years in prison.

"In the view of the IRS, we took our worst criminals off the street today," Lessoff said.

Lessoff estimated that Kahn's organizations had 4,000 clients, many of whom followed his advice and employed the same strategy and tactics that prompted the government to indict Snipes. The IRS agent hinted at more prosecutions.

Kahn's wife, Kathleen "Kookie" Kahn, would not comment on behalf of her husband, who was not in court when the verdicts were read. He refused to leave his cell at the Marion County Jail, claiming he was not participating in the trial because he did not recognize the authority of Senior U.S. District Judge William Terrell Hodges.

Rosile and his lawyer, David Wilson, would not comment.

The judge did not set a sentencing date for Snipes, Kahn and Rosile.

Snipes' defense team said the verdict affirms its belief that Snipes acted in good faith when he repeatedly corresponded with the agency, asking for an audit and an explanation of his tax obligation. The government classified many of the actor's letters as "frivolous" and interpreted them as tactics aimed at stalling payment of his tax debts.

Snipes "did not have bad intent or bad purpose," Barnes said. "In the end, I think Wes just got bad advice and believed it."

The actor did not file returns for the tax years 1999 through 2004, his lawyers said, because he was confused by conflicting tax advice that he received from his former tax adviser and from Kahn, who contends that income taxes are voluntary.

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